Tag Archives: Life

Reflections on Story

The script for my new project, the story of which, I hope, is just beginning.

The script for my new project, the story of which, I hope, is just beginning.

I want to talk about Story. Stories.

Stories have been on my mind lately. They’re always on my mind — I’ve always had a particular obsession with storytelling itself, as much as I have one with the act of it — but lately I’ve been reflecting upon what stories mean to me with a renewed focus, with redoubled vigor.

A few days ago, I wrote a note to myself:

Story is how I make sense of the world, and how some sense of the world is delivered to me.

At the time, I felt it was an important reflection. In retrospect, I recognize the words as some variation of an old mantra — one that readers might even recall from past posts here.

It doesn’t matter. Either way, I needed to deliver that message to myself. I still need to deliver it, perhaps every day.

Sometimes I try, uselessly, to fight reality. I try to convince myself that there are other important things to do. And there are, I suppose (eating, drinking, sleeping and…loving). But, for me, for better or worse, everything else — it all has to be part of The Story.

It gets dark, in my mind, when there’s just the noise and the flash of life filling the space there. I need to tell and experience stories — however they are defined, in whatever form — in order to stop myself from going crazy. I think, perhaps, in one form or another, we all need to do this. The danger, of course, is choosing the right stories to believe in and pursue.

There is also danger in denying the truth of our own stories, whatever they are. But as tempting as it may be, and however many of us may do this for long stretches and even entire lives — that truth, in the end, is irrefutable. We have authorship over the choices we make in life, that take us in whatever directions, down whichever paths. Every story invariably demands its day.

For all these reasons, I consider stories to be precious. Though I don’t mean by that they should also be stored behind glass, viewed from behind a rope.

I like my stories messy, a lot of the time. Some of the time I like them dirty. On occasion, I even like them to be confectionery. But, really, overall — I don’t much care.

Just give me something passionately told and fully considered. Give it to me in whatever form. Even within the narrative of my own life. I’ll take passion and thoughtfulness, every day, over the fear and the panic of the unknown.

I fucking love stories. I live for stories.

Don’t we all, when you really think about it?

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5 Daily Questions for Maintaining Creative Productivity

This an example of me acing Question 5: "Am I taking time to enjoy life?"

This an example of me acing Question 5: “Am I taking time to enjoy life?”

This January, for essentially the first time, I made a New Year’s Resolution. Two, actually. I decided to set two goals for myself, both of which were born out of my primary obsessions for most of the second half of 2013.

I want to finish at least shooting a feature film before the year is done, and I want to maintain at least a semblance of a balanced, healthy lifestyle while I do it.

Anyone who makes art — or who does any sort of project work in particular — could and would probably tell you that these are ambitious goals. Independent filmmaking in particular, with our lower budgets and our seemingly always empty pockets, puts a great deal of pressure on the human mind, body and spirit. It does this all the time, but the toll is especially great in the months leading up to production. Production itself is often a matter of pushing limits in ways that are perhaps sometimes celebrated, and which we can of course be proud of in retrospect, but which simply are not healthy in either the long or short term. And then there’s the post-production period, which often leaves us facing long recoveries. Physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually — even the addict’s rush that comes with having created, it doesn’t last. The truth is that making art depletes us.

Much of this is unavoidable, especially in the earlier years of a career, as we’re learning the ropes the hard way, as we invariably have to do. But, speaking as someone who has pushed myself too far in the past, I have to honestly say that I have come to the conclusion that, without balance, even art that has been hard-earned — it invariably suffers as we suffer by it, if and when we aren’t careful with ourselves. Limits can be pushed, but they also have to be respected.

For Example: One of The Times I Kinda Lost It

I arguably risked my life one day, for one of my films. Matters of budget and inexperience had led me to a place wherein I had to get my sound mix from New York to my editing bay (basically, a laptop set up in my old childhood bedroom in Rhode Island) — after 12 hours of work with our re-recording mixer. The film was set to premiere in a few days and wasn’t finished. I ended up making the drive alone, after having been awake for almost 24 hours. Towards the end, despite a surplus of caffeine, I couldn’t keep myself awake. It was three or four in the morning when I called my parent’s house (where I was living while making the film) because my fast-asleep fiancee wasn’t answering her cell. My brother picked up. I told him I needed someone to talk me through the last 45 minutes or so of the drive. It was that close. I had caught myself falling asleep at the wheel a few times.

Should I have pulled over to sleep? Possibly. There were a lot of things I should have done. Either way, when my phone battery died after about twenty minutes or so of conversation with my brother, I got desperate. I started talking to myself — loudly. I blasted the radio and opened all the windows and sang loudly. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know any of the words to the songs that play on the radio at three in the morning. When I couldn’t sing any more I came up with a sort of mad mantra, and repeated it and repeated it and repeated it. I rolled down all the windows in the car to let the cold November air inside. In short, I lost it. I went a little crazy. It’s perhaps a little funny now, but at the time it scared me — even if I didn’t admit it scared me.

How To Avoid This?

You can see why I’m eager to not repeat the same mistakes I’ve made in the past, when it comes to navigating the difficulties of making good stuff on the cheap.

As has been pretty well-documented here, I’ve come a long way as an artist and as a person since those days. I’m not even sure I would get to that bad of a place again even without my goal of balance. But I’ve come to treasure what I’ve built for myself these past few years. I still struggle with the repercussions of continuing to fight the good fight, and I still have to wrestle incrementally with my demons. I just lost a small battle to fear and doubt last night. Today, I’m all right, even though I know it will happen again. The key is to take things in stride and to avoid an avalanche.

I can’t afford to fall to madness, at any point, as I get closer to initiating my plans for making my new film (which you’ll hear about soon enough). The endeavor as a whole is going to be hard, and at times it’s going to be a legitimate struggle. I know that. But it’s also something I have to do. I have to make this film. I can’t let this need destroy me.

So, what can be done? What can I do — what can we do — to protect ourselves and our projects from the sometimes debilitating effects of long-term creative pursuits? Similarly, what can be done to protect our long-term creative pursuits from their own debilitating effects on our lives?

I think the answer is no different on the project level than it is on the macro level, as we strive continuously to live another day as artists in the real world.

Here’s what I came up with. Most of this is borrowed.

The Questions

Since the beginning of January, I have asked myself the following five questions at least once each day. Lately I’ve been trying to do this two or three times.

  1. Am I taking care of myself? It took my years to realize that I’m not good at self care. It took time and some outside help and it’s still sometimes a struggle. While everyone is different, I do believe that Americans on average — we don’t take great care of ourselves. Additionally, artists tend to be born out of complicated circumstances — not always, but much of the time. It’s important to my well-being and to my productivity to take care of myself, and to remind myself of the importance of self-care, everyday. How do I do it? Through reflection, meditation, and action. By action, I mean I try to do nice things for myself, no matter how small. Most of the time, this means taking a break or a walk or stopping everything to drink a cup of tea (it works). On a larger level, it means eating healthy on most days and getting enough sleep on most days. Sleep. Is. Huge.
  2. Am I avoiding the important? This is adapted from Tim Ferriss, who recommends in The Four Hour Work Week that we ask ourselves a variation of this question a few times per day (“Am I inventing things to do to avoid the important?”). I have long had my phone set to ask me Tim’s version of the question in the morning, the afternoon, and early in the night. It helps me keep myself focused. A lot of times, I ignore the reminder, because I know I’m on track. Sometimes, I growl at my phone, because I am not on track. Usually, this means I am afraid of something. However understandable the fear may be, it’s almost always in the way of “the important”. That won’t do. Also, an additional note: while this may not align perfectly with the spirit of what Ferriss advocates, sometimes, for me, “the important” is not a project. Sometimes, it’s self-care, or my relationships, or –more on this below — enjoying life.
  3. Have I taken a step towards my goal of making my film? I don’t care how big a step. Every day, I make sure to do one thing to move my current project forward. Sometimes, it’s just sending an email. Sometimes, it’s research. It doesn’t matter. Any tiny thing I do on any one day brings me one step closer to the larger realization of my ultimate goal. This can be easy to forget, when fear creeps in and all we can think about is the overwhelming list of tasks that must be completed to make a film, that are standing in the way of it being finished. This point of view doesn’t work. Trust me, if you aren’t already nodding your head. It’s a trap set by self-sabotage. However a big task gets done, and by whoever — it’s always a matter of steps. We don’t magically float to the top of a tall flight of stairs by staring up at them worrying how we’re possibly going to walk all steps at once. We get there, in time, by putting one foot ahead of the other until it’s over.
  4. Am I being open in my relationships with others? This is perhaps a question that’s aimed more specifically at where I am in my life right now, but I’m sharing it anyway in case a few people might benefit. Also, the question itself necessitates I mention it. Basically, I feel I’ve spent too much time holding back certain parts of myself (again, out of fear) as I’ve interacted with other people, throughout my life. Life goes more smoothly (and my work goes more smoothly) when I kick this propensity and endeavor to just be me. Focusing on openness, I have found, also helps hasten decision-making. I don’t labor over decisions or create as many scenarios in my head when I’m being open with myself and others. I’m able to more fully live in the moment. Daily meditation and informal studies of mindfulness and Buddhism have helped me immensely in this respect. Openness has numerous benefits. There’s room for tact, of course, because not everyone needs to know everything about everyone else, and we all need to protect ourselves sometimes — but I think we’ve suffered enough as people and as a society from the effects of leaving feelings unspoken. The repression isn’t healthy.
  5. Am I taking time to enjoy life? Save the best for last, right? I unfortunately need to remind myself to stop and enjoy life. I tend to work too hard. I tend to brood, when I’m not working. There is not much room for naked enjoyment in either of these default states. Even work that makes me happy — it’s still work. So I have to ask myself this question, at least once per day. When the answer is “no”, I do what I can to correct the situation. Sometimes, again, this means a cup of tea, or maybe a soda or a snack. Many times, it means taking time to read some fiction, watch a movie, or listen to a podcast. Anything that isn’t work and gives me pleasure. That includes going out. I will force myself to go out when I don’t want to, because I know by now to mistrust the feelings and thoughts I get that tell me to do the opposite and stay home and work or brood. Balance has to include joy, for me.

So, there you have it.

Hopefully, some of the above has been helpful. I’d be interested to hear what others are doing to maintain some semblance of balance while working through large projects (I include life in this category). Hit me up in the comments if you have anything to add, or any further questions about how I came up with this list in particular.

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Ride The Wave: Balancing Life + Creative Productivity

Multiverse Production Still

This is what the production of my last film did to my living room.

It’s remained quieter here than in recent months (but — look! — new site!), and by now I want to dive a little deeper into the reasons why.

Life’s been full.

We walk along many fine, intersecting lines, as we seek to find and maintain the right balance in life, between work and play and leisure and purpose. Sometimes, life looms over all these constituent parts with a largeness greater than the sum of its parts. Because, sometimes — often — life surprises us. Therein lies much of the beauty and the frightfulness of being alive.

I’ve been quiet because I’ve been busied by life, in ways that have sometimes been difficult. Generally, I’ve been okay with this — even in times of anxiety and concern — because, as they say, not many things of worth are necessarily easy to manage or attain.

The difference has been my shifting response to difficulty. I’m not fighting it as much, because I’m starting to see that my default modes of fighting were exhausting me, with little to show for my efforts. This isn’t to say I’ve begun capitulating, instead of fighting. It only feels like I am getting better at following my own advice, and am lately fighting smarter.

What I mean to say is that I’ve been taking better care of myself, while at the same time working to strengthen my resolve to keep up with efforts aimed at self-care as well as creative growth. Rather than push everything out to the page (or screen), I’m giving my thoughts and feelings some time and some room.

It’s been working. I’ve always said that I wanted (needed) to live my life directly, instead of, say, placing a monomaniacal focus only on producing — but today I’m not ashamed to say that I often haven’t done a great job of actually doing this. Invariably, I have lived — increasingly so, since I met my wife — but I haven’t often gone all-in on the full experience of living. By this, I mean that, in constantly fighting off that which I decided I didn’t like or want in my life, by defaulting to this reaction rather than a fuller experiential reaction, by living in constant fear of imminent death — I was regularly missing out on a part of reality.

I’m not exactly censuring myself for this, but I bring it up because I’m not sure it’s a necessarily unique experience.

The difficulties of life are just as real as its pleasures. Both need to be experienced, if we’re to interact and react with others and the outside world in a true, honest way. That is another thing I’ve often said I’ve wanted. I’ve said it to myself and I’ve said it to others, who often claim to want Truth as well. But you have to look at something first, have to touch it and listen to it, before that can really begin to happen.

Related to all this, I’ve also been locked on a rich vein of productivity lately. I don’t remember ever being this productive. I’ve been churning out pages like a champ. Some of the writing has been hard, and has taken a toll on me emotionally, but overall I cannot and will not question this development past the point of making sure I take my health and happiness into account while I ride the wave.

Last month, in particular, was mostly chaotic — in my head. Many were the days when I got plenty of sleep, ate well and took care of myself, but woke up the following day exhausted. To quote my wife, who at points could only watch and attempt to help: “Your mind is exhausting you.”

She was right, about that and the fact that something had to be done — but I think I was also right to let things ride for a bit, in an attempt to give myself the time and space to identify what was going on and attempt to channel the energy.

A lot of that process involved asking myself personal questions about personal matters that required careful, thoughtful, heartfelt attention. But I have, thankfully, throughout a life that has been frequently jolted towards chaos for long stretches of time by an “exhausting mind” — I’ve learned how to balance myself out at such times by abandoning myself to my need to keep writing and creating.

My point is that I now have more clarity and experience than I used to have, in terms of having patience with myself as the complicated dance between life and art plays out in the way it must.

So, finally, I want to share some insights into what I have specifically learned through all this, in terms of how to press forward, not only in times of upheaval and growth but most of the time. Many, if not all of these lessons, can be found in many others places on the web, in some form or another. Because many appear to be universal truths of self-care and creative productivity.

That isn’t to say I’m writing this only for creatives, or that productivity itself is the goal. As I have mentioned once or twice before, I believe we as human beings are fundamentally creative. It’s damaging to all of us to reserve sole use of the word as a descriptor of artists and art and art-like-things only. For better or worse, we all create — and/or share in creation — every day. Every imagined circumstance, every hope and fear, owes its existence to an intrinsic creative impulse. Creativity is fundamentally human.

Similarly, regarding productivity — we are all of us, always, producing. We just don’t always exercise much judgement in deciding what to produce, or take as much responsibility for what we’re already producing, as we otherwise might. Many times, we react more than we act. We produce new and wider roads away from our fears, rather than seek the tools we need to turn around and face them. These lessons essentially reflect some of what I have learned (and am seeking to remind myself) in my own eternal battle between fear and action.

Finally, you’ll notice many lessons appear to contradict each other, when taken in pairs. Exactly.

Here we go:

  • Get healthy. This lesson is first on the list for a reason. It’s the most important one, and perhaps the hardest to implement and maintain over the long term. Getting truly healthy takes work, dedication, and perseverance. For me, it took a series of fits and starts before I finally got on a real, sustainable path to healthfulness. Unsurprisingly, this lesson also brings the biggest, most life-changing results, once you learn it and apply it. Where to start? I can’t really tell you that. Before we can get healthy, we need to arrive at an accurate, realistic, perhaps unsparing (but not necessarily judgmental) assessment of how we are faring — physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally. It takes testing, reflection, introspection. It’s not an overnight process. It’s a lifelong process. But major changes can be made over the course of months and years. Some parts of healthiness are simple. Many Americans are overweight and out of shape. I have been both, many times, for long stretches. Currently, I am neither, and being fit has not only boosted my confidence and self-esteem (significant pluses), it has left me more energetic and more equipped to fight off sickness and fatigue. I also stopped drinking alcohol entirely, except for Saturdays and special occasions. I cut my caffeine intake by 70%, as an experiment, to see if doing so would reduce daily anxiety (it did). You don’t have to do any or all of these things, but dedicating yourself, perhaps one step at a time, to areas of your life that you know in your heart could use some attention in terms of healthiness, or to similarly test changes — the results begin to cascade through everything you feel and do. Finally, note that I mentioned mental and spiritual health as well. Excluding the introduction of some sick, horrific scientific experiment, and/or divine intervention, to the process — we aren’t able to see our hearts and souls. That doesn’t mean an idea of both shouldn’t be sought after, and similarly assessed. The pursuit of these sort of deepest personal truths are essential to pure creativity. We can’t produce true happiness in our life when starting from a hurt or damaged place. I’d argue we can’t completely produce genuine, heartfelt contributions to society from such a starting place either.
  • Always be doing something — and actually do things. This is definitely one of those lessons that’s already out there, in many forms, but it’s been worth it for me to constantly remind myself of its importance. I tend to brood. I used to think it was just part of being me, part of being a writer. It’s not. Brooding, often, isn’t very different from doing nothing. And doing nothing, in such a way, is not only of no real use (to anyone) — it’s also paralyzing. The mind fills the space created by do-nothingness without your permission — and it doesn’t always choose what you would want it to choose if you were taking any control over the process. Staying active, and focusing as often as possible, time after time, on one task (or experience) that we sincerely want to do (or have accepted we must do), keeps us aimed in the right direction. Starting small, and breaking tasks up, helps immensely. Starting early helps immensely — it sets a tone of relaxed accomplishment that can last a whole day. Don’t have enough time? That’s a lie. Give up something that’s really not important to your life or happiness. Cut TV time in half, or by an hour (to start). Or stay off social media for a predetermined stretch of time. But you have to actually do things. Repeatedly. That’s why it’s good to start small and simple. Set up manageable patterns that make you feel good and learn to love being active. Find a system you love, that made to work for you.
  • Plan, at least once per day, to do nothing. Nothing. For at least a few minutes. I’ve been meditating, as a means of accomplishing this. It’s not as hard or as confusing as it seems. There are free podcasts on iTunes that include guided meditations. I’ve been using this one. It truly helps to jolt the mind out of less-than-helpful, unproductive patterns. For a quick video about the value of doing nothing for a few minutes per day, click here.
  • Go out into the world and stay in it. About a year ago, I started to realize that I was hiding myself from much of my own life. I was spending too much time alone in my apartment. If not for the incremental presence of my wife on certain nights (we were working opposite schedules at the time), and the necessity of getting up and going to work (which was truly a struggle on most days), I’m not sure I would have left the apartment except to get food and essentials. When I did leave the apartment, it hurt, and it exhausted me. The story of how I got to this place is complicated and multi-layered and I’m still working some of it out. However, with some help from my therapist, some more help from other resources (including Marc Maron’s podcast, which I’ve written about before), and a personal dedication to battle the unhealthy pattern — I was able to accept my condition at that time and make some changes. I don’t think what happened was necessarily uncommon for a writer (and I did come out of the stretch with a ton of pages). But, thankfully, I am a filmmaker as well. So I wrote Multiverse, one day, around the time when I was working on this particular issue. Making the film proved to be a means of not only coming to terms with this exact lesson but owning it. So began a long, ongoing journey to get myself — as myself — out into the world physically (New York City presents an opportunity to this about a hundred times every second) that has changed my life. I’m happier, now that I get out more. I feel more connected to people and to life. These two developments, taken together, have contributed greatly to increases in the quality and quantity of the work I’ve been producing. This blog is evidence of the shift (and has helped me bridge the process). In a few months, it will be a year old. And I’m enjoying the existence of this ongoing connection with you, even if it’s not exactly the same or as good as interacting in person.
  • Respect the solitary impulse, then embrace it when it comes. I did say there would be contradictions. What I mean by advocating solitude, immediately after admitting a struggle to escape it, is to point out the importance of being comfortable with ourselves, and taking the time to feel and to think deeply about our own lives (more of that part later). The differences between falling to isolationism and embracing solitude only when the desire for it comes naturally — are many. First, while we think and feel all day, we don’t always (or often) do so actively. Many times, we’re reacting to outside circumstances and stimuli. This is okay, and perhaps even necessary when out in the world — but there are many other worlds inside the human imagination as well. These inner worlds are just as complex as the outside world (if not more so) but frequently more elusive in terms of seeing them clearly (if at all). They are also in a constant state of interplay with the outside world, and the people in it. To strike a proper balance, as this interplay continues in perpetuity, I believe it’s essential to take time, when you need it, for yourself only. I have to do this on a daily basis, at this point. I need to be alone, for long stretches, at several points throughout the day, on most days. I can’t be a writer without solitude. I can’t figure out what I’m feeling, or why I’m feeling what I’m feeling (which affects what we do and how we do it) without taking many moments to pause. I’d argue, similarly, that none of us can be full, complete, healthy and productive versions of ourselves unless we constantly take time the amounts of time we need alone — and no longer — to get comfortable with, feel compassion for, and better understand ourselves.
  • Reach out and be vulnerable. This lesson comes from smashing the previous two together. It’s not enough to put yourself out there, and to also spend time alone figuring out what’s inside that person you are launching into the world. As far as you are comfortable, which can perhaps be figured out by taking small steps — as a means of protecting your core self to the degree you feel you must on a case by case basis — it helps to begin introducing some of what you learned and observed about yourself, in quiet moments alone, to the people around you. First, obviously, it helps to surround yourself with those with whom you feel comfortable but who also excite you — people with whom you share interests and/or experience. For some people, this is very easy. For others, it’s hard. For me, it’s both. However, I have come to believe that reaching out and being more honest and open (sometimes even to the discomfort of others, within the realm of respectfulness) is essential to well-being and productivity. Being open about your feelings, wants and needs — it halves the available arsenal of Fear and Doubt. Fear and Doubt are normal elements of life with their own part to play in how we act and interact with others. But, oftentimes, to me at least, they seem to be dominate too many of the considerations and decisions of the average American. Think of how and when you came to love and to trust those people in your life who became your closest friends and family. Shared experience and common interest and chance all probably played a part in each story of each relationship. But what do you remember about each story? I bet it’s the feeling of sharing, of a true and special connection being formed as you traded “secrets” over a drink, or shared some adventure that can never be duplicated, etc. Such stories don’t happen if we don’t offer a part of ourselves. Often, this must be done in spite of fear of rejection or judgment.
  • Lean on your defenses, when you absolutely must. But then get back on your feet, when the threatening moment passes. This is a tricky lesson. For me, it took (continues to take) a lot of patience. Defensiveness has a reputation for being “a bad thing”, and to a great extent that reputation is earned. However, at the end of the day, despite everything that has happened to us both in and out of our control, we have to deal with the lingering consequences. With limits set at the threshold of rudeness, disrespect, and reactive antagonism, I’ve found it can be healthy to defend myself against people who have no real idea or concern for what I need or am going through at any given moment. Again, I believe this is a useful lesson, on average, for many people. So many of us frequently default to absorbing blows rather than deflecting them — even as we are bombarded daily by the attacks or encroaching needs of others. This has a very large impact on what we are able to accomplish during a given day. It can have an even larger effect on what we believe we can accomplish on a given day (or at all). Leaning on defenses, in instances wherein we are doing so to protect our own intentions, can help get us from those intentions to the completion of a goal. In the past, I’ve made the mistake of swinging too fully from total defensiveness (which is isolating and unhelpful) and total immersion and vulnerability (which cannot be sustained over any long term in a healthy way). It’s been helpful to realize that short breaks from a total commitment to say, putting yourself out there, reaching out and being vulnerable, constant motion — they can help keep you inoculated against a reversion to unhappiness and poor productivity by introducing a bit of the old poison back into your blood now and again. What I’m saying is: don’t be afraid to return to old coping mechanisms and “vices” that have served you well in the past — so long as they aren’t harmful in moderation or addictive. If you don’t know the difference, err on the side of caution and fall back on defenses you know you can safely lower when you’re done with them.
  • Think, and be discerning and forgiving. This final lesson is somewhat of a broad catch-all for wrapping up all the rest. But it’s almost as important as the first one, if not more so. As contextualized at the top of this post — life is messy, unpredictable, and complicated. Much of the above is about managing the conditions of life while at the same time attempting to impose a touch of order in places where such order can help. Honestly, none of what I have shared has worked for me perfectly, all the time. Sometimes I fail to stay true to my own advice, sometimes life gets too overwhelming for it to be possible to manage anything other than “eat and drink and sleep and fulfill only your core commitments”. To be able to weigh and differentiate between good choices and bad, to know what is healthy or helpful or what isn’t, to figure out how to adjust what and how, it takes not only a desire to be well and to produce but a commitment to discerning thoughtfulness. I used to be very frightened of making decisions. Luckily, seven years as an independent filmmaker has mostly cured me of that fear. Forgiving myself, say, for lapses in dedication to my own well-being, or for a “failure” to realize that it’s time to “just chill” — this I am still working on. But it’s going okay. The point is to aim the brain at what really matters, which is probably a mix of productivity and simply…living.

This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list. It is, however, a representation of what has definitely been working for me, lately. If any ideas tickle you, give them a try. It can’t hurt.

Well, it can hurt. But life ain’t a daydream written on a cloud. It’s not a horror show either, most of the time.

Life is real and tactile and yet elusive and mysterious. For myself, I guess I’m trying to settle more comfortably into this greatest of paradoxes. There’s not much any of us can do to actually affect the balance in either direction, anyway,

We can only ride the waves as they come, and do what we can with what we have and with what’s around us.

On Clarity and Stillness

It took me some time to figure out where to go, after writing the post that appears previous to this one. I think this is understandable – what could possibly compare to a discussion of life and death?

But, of course, I am resolved in my determination to continue a dialogue here. So I took some time – to rest my head, focus on the day-to-day, and to think. And then, eventually, I realized what I wanted to talk about next.

I want to provide a more thorough, more specific breakdown of the path I took, over the last several years, as I proceeded through the staggered healing process I outlined more generally in my previous post.

I have felt different since writing that post. A lot of that has to do with finally having shared the story, honestly, with myself. But the rest of it has to do with the reception I received from readers over the past few weeks, as well as the sheer number of readers that have found their way to that particular piece. For this reason, I feel like it would be helpful to take a step back and share more observations about how I was eventually able to work through not only my near-death experience but several other pre-conditions that were standing in the way of my healing.

When I was younger, my head was full of static. Very early in life, I learned to deal with this by expressing myself through writing and by talking. I was aware of very little, in regards to this “condition,” apart from the fact that it was something I had to struggle with or against. The writing helped. Friends helped. Family helped. Girlfriends helped. However, I still dealt with most of the turmoil, then, much in the same way that I dealt with the turmoil caused by the death-fear that I discussed in the preceding post: privately, secretly.

As I got older, the successfulness of this method began to erode. Each successive piece that I wrote inched me further towards an eventual day of reckoning, in terms of confronting the issues that were creating my head full of static. When I got to college, matured through my writing and  through other processes, and let loose a bit in certain ways – the static began to separate into more discernible channels of suggestiveness and conscience.

First, perhaps, there was the age-old angel and devil dichotomy. Later, after my near-death experience, and after I had been in counseling for a while, an additional channel emerged – an unwilling, frightened decider, “cursed” to constantly deliberate over the whispers of angel and devil both.

It was an exhausting way to live, and I’m glad to be (mostly) done with it.

Without going into more detail than I am comfortable with, I want to list and summarize the four factors that allowed me to get to the place where I am now – a place where I can often proceed through a day with a sense of clarity and stillness that has eluded me (at least in consistent terms) for most of my life until very recently.

First, there is the writing. The page delivers no judgment. I simply would not have made it to this point without the compulsion to express myself through words, or without the courage to continue opening myself up to and through this practice to the point I only recently arrived at in a pure way – the point we are at now, wherein I can be fully honest in my writing without much fear of judgment. Anyone can do this. All you need is paper and pen, or a computer, and the courage to try and to keep going.

The “decider” emerged from out of the page. And I never would have been able to generate the courage to let him into my active life, where he would eventually gain a prominent-enough position to successfully relegate both angel and devil to the background (life, modern life especially, cannot be so simply divided into good and bad), were it not for the help of two additional factors.

I would not be at this place if I had not sought mental health counseling. Similarly, I would not have had the courage to seek this sort of help, as well as to push forward with my writing at points where all I wanted to do was cut and run from the truths struggling to push through each successive piece – without the love and encouragement I received from my wife. If last week’s discussion of life and death ended with a repetition of my refrain about the central importance of love as the fulcrum of human existence, she is the central reason for that.

Courage is a word we sometimes throw around too recklessly. I don’t know that it is so prevalent, these days, in its purest form. I wonder about its origins, about how we tend to ascribe the word to individuals who seem to do or have done incredible things that the remainder of us can hardly believe. But I’m sincerely unsure how it could be very prevalent, here and now – because I believe courage is a more complex element of humanity than we commonly profess it to be. I don’t know that it is, or can be, intrinsic. At the end of the day, of course, we must find strength in ourselves, in order to accomplish the largest and the smallest of tasks. And yet, even in an age of increasing godlessness, where does courage come from, if not a place of faith? And what is faith, according to contemporary standards, if not trust?

Finally, can we be courageous, if we do not first open ourselves up to truth, including hard truth?

My wife saw and believed in a part of me that up until very recently I was not fully capable of even acknowledging. She trusted that I would eventually be up to the task of not only acknowledging but embodying – rescuing – that same part. When, at times, I seemed to stray from the path of rescue, she let me know it. She pushed me to be better. I have done the same for her. Neither of us have been perfect. But no one – especially not here and now, in an American culture that lives dangerously outside reality as a general rule – should pretend that perfection is anywhere near attainable. We can only try, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing, and then trust that, in the end, it will all have mattered – from the inside to the out.

And then, finally, there is you.

Writing, private healing, personal love – eventually, all these things fell short of the complete task of helping me rid myself of first, the static and, later, a state of constant internal dialogue. I say this not to minimize the crucial ongoing role of each of the first three factors in my continuing struggle for redemption – especially in terms of personal love, which is the only factor of the three that translates into and co-exists with the fourth and final factor.

Life, after all, no matter what science might suggest or aspire towards, does not separate out evenly into pure lists of numbers, or repeatable patterns easily broken down, despite their complexity. Always, there is the mystery, that which makes the human condition what it is. Here we are, always, together in our confusion and loneliness.

So, then, there is you. Other people. Groups of other people. The social world. Community. Communities.

I have experienced fleeting moments of stillness and clarity over the course of the my life, despite the static and the internal yammering. First, there were (still are) those moments during writing and after having written. They bring me peace. As important and beneficial as these moments are, they do not endure. They must be renewed. This is fine, but it is not everything.

I believe that I was drawn inexorably to film because of its unique existence as an experiential narrative built upon an amalgam of personal expressions, which are themselves created through the efforts of a unified community of artists and laborers. In simpler terms, I was drawn to film because it is a communal form of art.

Until I began my career as a filmmaker, I was always struggling to reconcile two disparate selves – the private thinker and the community leader. When I was younger, I acted the part of the leader, but felt secretly unfulfilled in the role. Later, I would largely withdraw from society, intent on providing the private thinker with time and space to thrive – only to find out that he, too, felt less than whole. Filmmaking seemed an opportunity to give each half what it needed. And it most assuredly has been exactly that.

The first moment of pure clarity I ever had in my entire life occurred midway through the first day of shooting my first short film. The set came to life, in the moment between one shot and the next, and I stopped to look at the cast and crew. They moved quickly, with purpose, with passion – and, for a precious few seconds, the world melted away. I wouldn’t experience another feeling like it until a few years later, when I fell in love.

Tinier moments of stillness and clarity would occur in the succeeding years, as I finished a script, when I arrived at post-production and compiled a sequence that, even though completed by a novice filmmaker, approximated the poetry of a true filmmaker closely enough to give me hope, that I would one day settle into the identity that I felt could be my purpose in life.

And, of course, there have been many precious moments with my wife.

Perhaps it happened because of an intersection of my current age and all of the above processes of self-discovery and change – but, lately, even in times of distress, clarity and stillness have become more of the norm than the exception for me. It seemed to happen suddenly, though I understand, obviously, that it was everything but sudden. All I know is that I have found myself here, and that it wasn’t easy. Because it wasn’t easy, and because it feels like such a blessing, my compulsion to foster and protect what is good in my life, what has gotten me here, is incomprehensibly strong.

I am settled into the mystery. I embrace it. I fear death, as any human does. I serve love, as a method of imbuing my life with meaning, in defiance of death’s stare. I seek out and depend on the company of my family, friends, and any others who wish to join in efforts to document and advocate for truth – for stillness and clarity. When we stop tightly gripping or fearfully evading life, we become able to alternate simply between participating in it, and witnessing its contradiction with wonder. This has not been easy, and I don’t suppose it ever will be. Constantly, I must remind myself – must be reminded – of what I wrote earlier. That living, living truthfully, takes courage. That courage takes faith. That faith does not thrive in isolation.

The Time I Faced Death, and How It Saved My Life

I had a near-death experience at twenty-one.

Some people know this. Others know I got sick, but never understood the severity of the incident or its impact on me. And who can blame them? Most of my doctors didn’t understand what was going on at that time, and there isn’t any way of telling how someone is going to react to that sort of an experience.

I suspect some people, though perhaps not many, are capable of shrugging off a “minor” brush with death. For me, I’ve only recently been able to say that I’ve gotten past it. I can talk about it now, here or there. It took over seven years to get to this point, but at least I am here.

I reacted, initially, when the ordeal first ended, by avoiding my feelings. Defying them. At the time, it was the only thing I could do. People tried to help me and I said I was fine. I pressed forward. For a while this behavior helped. But sooner or later, every trauma demands its day of reckoning.

I’ve started this particular post, about this particular subject, about ten times over the past several months. I could never finish it. Today, I can. I want to finish it. I want to share what I’ve learned, over the past several years, after such a life-changing experience. I think it’s the next step in my healing process.

The details are simple and obscure. I caught a virus while traveling abroad (in Europe). It began its assault on my body near the tail-end of the trip, which had been a wonderful, once-in-a-lifetime experience for me, up to that point.

The symptoms began when I was making my way slowly back to New York. They were comparatively tame at first, and isolated to one bodily system. I was supposed to spend a few days in Paris before my return. After spending all but an afternoon’s worth of that time sick in a friend’s cousin’s apartment, I made the flight back to my place in the city and then I didn’t get better.

I got much worse. An initial trip to the emergency room didn’t trigger any alarms. They gave me an IV for dehydration (my symptoms had been purely gastrointestinal  until then) and sent me home. A day later I all-but-collapsed trying to make it up a flight of six steps.

The virus attacked everything. Everything. I had almost collapsed because it had made its way into my heart, which was sustaining damage. You never expect, at twenty-one, to be able to cut the line at the emergency room because of that sign that says: “If you are experiencing shortness of breath or chest pain come to the nurse’s window immediately.” But this can now be counted among my life’s achievements.

I don’t want to talk too much more about the rest of the experience. It was horrible. The doctors (I had a small army of them) were never able to isolate or identify the virus. The main battle lasted about two weeks. They were able to monitor me and give my body what it was lacking while I couldn’t eat or get out of bed. They helped me fight a dangerous fever. But, for all purposes, despite every attempt on the part of the hospital staff to find some way of identifying a treatment, it was me against the virus.

I don’t even know if, despite the severity of the episode, I was ever truly in danger of dying. I do know it was serious for the first few days. I did get the sense that, if my body wasn’t up to the fight, that there weren’t too many other options.

But my body was up to the fight. I was young, and relatively healthy. Despite the quiet horror of the experience – you don’t expect to be admitted to the cardiac ICU at twenty-one– I won.

This is something I can feel good about, now. The fallout of those weeks, though, lasted years. In some ways, perhaps, it may never end.

It is not a minor thing, to have to face the real possibility of your own death at an age when most men and women are still capable of holding onto the dear, childish illusion – that we are invincible. Neither is it an easy experience to handle, after the fact, when you’re someone who is used to charging through life with definitive reasons for needing that illusion.

Before the experience, I was an anxious person. I struggled, internally, with demons of an at-that-time indeterminate origin. Once I was out of the hospital, once I rested and got better – everything got worse.

I had a year left of college to complete at the time. Several people advised me to take a semester off. I refused. I couldn’t do that. I was too scared. Having glimpsed death, I couldn’t do anything, in the wake of that experience, but grip life more firmly than before. For better or worse, my reaction was a mix of healthy and unhealthy. People reached out to me, but no one got through to me. I was very convincing, when repeating the refrain that I was “okay”.

There was a moment, when I was first admitted to the hospital, before anyone knew the extent of the damage my heart had sustained, when I was alone in my room. Everything had happened quickly up until that point. The fraternity brother who had taken me to the hospital (while we’re here, don’t judge fraternities, my brothers helped save my life) wasn’t allowed up to my room. They had already taken about as much blood as they could take, so that a battery of tests could be run on it. A legion of specialists would soon be on their way. But, for the moment, I had no roommate. It was my first opportunity to process what was happening, alone, for myself.

This is very hard for me to admit, and it took me a very long time to come to terms with what happened next, but I feel it’s important to be honest about this. Regardless of factual accuracy, I felt a very real sense at that moment that it could all be over.

And I was relieved.

I have learned, since, that my reaction was not necessarily abnormal. For a long time, before that, I feared that it meant that, pre-virus, I was already broken beyond repair. I didn’t understand how I could feel relief in the face of prospective death.

We are conditioned to believe that we should always want to live, and that if we don’t, something is wrong. This is, obviously, as it should be. But at that moment, at least, the simplicity of my position – of finding myself suddenly balancing exactly over the fulcrum between life and death, with nothing else existing between – it appealed to me.

Now, after years of therapy, I have a better understanding of what happened that day. I know that my reaction was not about how little or how much I valued my life. I had been relieved, but not because I didn’t want to live. Life, as we all know, is rarely simple, and frequently difficult. For everyone.

Again, this took a very long time to completely sink in (and I am still in the process of implementing and applying what I have learned), but I think that what I really needed at that time was to put an end to how I had been living.

In this way, facing death saved my life. In this way, I became fortunate. Despite all reasons to believe the contrary, my experience was not only negative. It hasn’t been an easy path or a natural one, but what happened to me at that time in my life, and in the years since, did allow me, at a young age, to jump to a new set of tracks. Even if I didn’t know it was happening.

I have always had a few demons in me. They came with me, to the new set of tracks. That, unfortunately, is the way this sort of thing works, for those of us who have to deal with such a reality.

But my physical victory over a deadly threat to my life graced me with the opportunity to begin appreciating and valuing that life in all other arenas. That which used to be a struggle for me (against my self), in all other terms, slowly became a war (for myself).

I’ll repeat it again. It took years. It did not go smoothly and I did not make all the right decisions in getting to this point. But the fact remains that I faced the void. The fact remains that, having glimpsed it, and despite many wrong turns and many low periods, I eventually stopped staring at it and turned back to face life.

And I want to tell you why I was able to do that.

Something else happened when I was alone in that hospital room. Something else happened after I was left there wondering why I wasn’t scared to die.

Once that moment passed, I realized that I had to call my parents. Which I did.

I told them that I was in the hospital, that there was something wrong with my heart, and that the doctor’s didn’t know anything else. They got the name of the hospital, said they were on their way, and they hung up.

And then I cried. Quietly, and privately. Because I was scared and I didn’t want to die.

I needed to share this story for that reason. I want it to be clear, why I do what I do. Why I am here, on this site, and out there, struggling for my films.

My connections to life, my family and my friends, proved to me that there was value to my existence, even at a time when I couldn’t find that value for myself. This is the truth that love brings to our lives. This is why, for me, love is life. It is the only thing that can combat death. On any scale. In whatever terms.

While that all sounds tidy, in retrospect, the fact remains that I’ve spent much of my interior and private life, over the past seven years, fighting my fear of that initial reaction – that first feeling of apathy in the face of death. At the same time, out of a very real fear of the sheer power of love as death’s opposite, I don’t know that I’ve ever fully embraced the idea that it too, is something that, at the end of the day, requires some sort of abandonment-of-the-self in order to thrive. This is a perhaps common philosophical comparison that thinkers and poets have struggled with and attempted to define for a long time. That doesn’t change the fact, however, that our relationship with that comparison must become personal in order for us to begin to at least respect its mystery.

This is understandable. Love, like life, is a weighty proposition. As a young man, I was of that typical poetic sort who was in love with the idea of love. I am no longer afflicted with that temporary, imperfect, half-realized definition of the word.

For me, at least, for now, life and love is about releasing my hold on fear. Not fear’s hold on me. My hold on fear.

I repeat: what I’ve learned about demons, through all this, is that they don’t die. They don’t go away. They can’t be vanquished and they can’t be ignored. If they exist for you, they are permanent. Perhaps our demons are even a naturally occurring part of the human condition. It would make sense, but I won’t speak for everyone.

So what, specifically, changed? What did I do, to come around in the way that I have, after everything I went through?

How did I begin opposing my fears – of death, love, life – insofar as anything like this can be done?

Slowly and methodically, I went after the demons. I sourced them out, I learned what sustained them, and I cut off their supply. I began working to strengthen that version of myself who hadn’t been up to the fight, so many years ago. I began trusting the at-that-time mysterious part of myself that helped pull me through. I started to trust the people in my life who deserved that trust, and began distancing myself from those who could not be trusted. If my demons won’t ever die, at least I can see to it that they are starved, powerless pathetic creatures.

It’s been a long and difficult journey to get to this point, but I think I was finally able to finish this post because now I truly believe it – I’m okay.